4 lessons learned from retailers’ pandemic playbooks

Posted on: June 2, 2021Updated on: June 12, 2023By: Jordan Dilworth

The last year-and-a-half in retail has certainly had its challenges, especially for those who support a frontline workforce. Retailers have struggled to make the right decisions with incomplete information, and tried to keep chaos at bay while pivoting on a dime. 

But, as the old saying goes, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’ In spite of all this change, the retail industry has made it work. You’ve innovated. And you’ve learned a few things along the way. 

Now, many parts of the world are on the path to re-opening. Revival is the word on everyone’s lips. At the same time, many in the industry are rethinking the ways they’ve always done things, re-evaluating what it takes to win in a competitive environment and rewriting the old rules of retail. 

Some things won’t go back to normal—and the industry will be better for it. From our conversations with retail and grocery leaders, here are several lessons learned that will shape frontline support in the future. 

Arrows on pavement pointing in multiple directions

1. A fresh approach to onboarding

Traditional frontline onboarding usually went one of two ways. Either you’d throw everything but the kitchen sink at associates in the first few days, and hope some of it stuck. Or, you’d get all the mandatory compliance boxes checked, then send them loose to learn the rest on the job.  

Most would agree that neither approach offered a great experience for frontline employees—nor was it particularly effective for the business. But it remained the status quo, until the pandemic forced retailers to change it up. 

Amidst hiring surges and labour shortages, companies streamlined the onboarding process and leveraged new tools and delivery methods. They cut the fluff and zeroed in on only what people need to know to perform confidently. They found ways to connect employees with critical training and information in the flow of work, without taking them off the floor for training sessions. 

Take Lowe’s for example. Over the past year, they transformed their new associate onboarding process. Jamie Furey, VP of Talent Management, Learning and Diversity at Lowe’s, explains: 

“We went out on this quest to figure out, for every department in a Lowe’s, what are the five things that are most important they get done when they first start at Lowe’s? We rooted our onboarding program around that. The five most important things, and how we could break it down in a really digestible way and tell associates what they need to do every shift as they first start at Lowe’s.” 

They rounded out the onboarding experience with a digital onboarding assistant and in-store mentorship. Finally, they kept the learning going with additional training and job aids that associates can access as needed in the flow of work. 

This approach allows them to get people on the floor faster, without compromising the employee or customer experience. And if their recent announcement about hiring 50,000 new seasonal associates is any indication, their onboarding upgrade will continue to serve the business long after the pandemic comes to an end. 

Give every new hire the right amount of support to get them up to speed quickly.

2. Frontline communication fuels engagement and operational agility 

When the pandemic hit, frontline communications took on a new urgency. The cadence of updates from HQ went from occasional to near-daily. Tensions ran high, and the need for team unity was strong. Ad-hoc communication didn’t cut it—leaders needed certainty that their messages were being received and understood. 

Retailers evolved their communication methods to reach associates directly, with greater frequency than ever before. Many sent daily or weekly updates from the CEO and shared kudos and recognition alongside operational information. Others opened two-way communication channels to hear from frontline employees firsthand.

“We completely changed our communication strategy and plan,” said Gianna Venturi, Chief People Officer at Eyemart Express. “Once a month, we used to do these videos with the senior leaders to talk about what was going on in the company, and each store would have a session to listen to that. Well, we’ve just thrown that out the window, and we now communicate everything directly to our associates. We use a lot more informal communication tools, like selfie videos from our CEO, which have been a massive hit. They just love being able to see him. And we’re also gathering more information from them directly that’s fueling everything we do.” 

Retailers have seen the benefits of better frontline communication: higher associate engagement, more consistency between stores and greater operational agility. And most aren’t planning to go back. 

3. Personal mobile devices have a place on the frontlines

The retail industry has been hesitant about personal devices on the frontlines. But when the pandemic hit, the ‘pros’ started to outweigh fears of security concerns or slacking. 

By allowing employees to use personal devices to access critical updates, training and job aids, retailers were able to: 

  • Avoid the hygiene concerns of having multiple employees share a single computer or device
  • Reach employees who were away from the workplace for various reasons, such as furloughs 
  • Provide a convenient way for associates to get the information they need, where and when they need it 

Jessica Gasser, VP of Retail Operations at Wakefern, explained the impact of that shift

“Axonify was a huge opportunity for the organization to make that leap into using mobile devices, and shift away from some old ways of thinking that ‘I can’t trust an employee to have a phone on the sales floor, and you have to go into this one room with one computer.’ It really was a very powerful moment for the organization to provide that connection for our associates and make it easy for them.”

They’ve seen an uptick in associate engagement and participation in training, which has had a ripple effect on customer satisfaction as well. 

It’s clear that the need for just-in-time training and information isn’t going anywhere, and neither are personal mobile devices on the frontlines. In fact, the use case will likely only grow in the coming years, as technology becomes more embedded in our lives and employers seek more efficient ways to connect and engage with their frontline.  

4. The days of one-and-done training are over

With the rate of change this past year, the ink hardly had a chance to dry on training materials before they were out of date. 

In response, employers turned to shorter microlearning content that was hyper-focused on just what employees need to know and then reinforced in short training sessions over time. Ongoing training, delivered in the flow of work, emerged as the best way to ensure employees’ skills and knowledge kept pace with business goals.

“I think that the old school thought process of sitting somebody down in front of a terminal for eight hours, it’s not practical. First of all, they’re not retaining that information. You’re checking it off to say you did it, but it’s not even meaningful,” said Gasser. “Those days are gone. The associate population doesn’t have the attention span for it either. By providing adaptive microlearning in the flow of work, we’re able to tailor training to individual knowledge gaps and ensure the right people get the right information at the right time.”

Cross-training was another key strategy during the pandemic, as retailers shifted staff to pinch-hit in other departments in response to changing consumer demands. This has proven to be a win-win. It keeps associates engaged and growing in the business, reducing turnover. And, it ensures retailers have a strong, versatile workforce that can adapt quickly as conditions change. 

After all, the last year has taught us that change is the only constant. Cross-training and reskilling will be critical to ensure retailers can adapt and continue to serve customers, no matter what comes next. 

Jordan Dilworth

Jordan Dilworth has spent the majority of his marketing career working with some of the world’s leading brands and retail organizations across the apparel, footwear and beverage alcohol industries. Prior to Axonify, he was the head of North American Retail Marketing at Columbia Sportswear Company for 125 stores across the portfolio of brands and store formats. At Axonify, Jordan leads the Demand Marketing team with a focus on the Retail and Food & Beverage Industries.

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